The Origins of Mile High Connects

In 2011, plans were underway to expand our region’s Rapid Transit District (RTD) through nine new rail lines and two bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, adding over 150 miles of new transit lines in metro Denver.

With foresight, several community leaders and organizations gathered to develop a collaborative effort to ensure the Metro Denver regional transit system would offer all residents the opportunity for a high quality of life. And so, the Mile High Connects collaborative was launched in 2011 to take collective action on community-led and driven solutions in neighborhoods impacted by the RTD light rail expansion.

031
037

Our Collaborative's Original Goals

Increase resources to build affordable inclusive communities along transit lines

Influence policy to ensure community is centered in urban and economic planning

Increase resident engagement in neighborhoods impacted by the transit system

Leverage transit to connect folks to affordable housing jobs, schools, and services

Ensure Denver Metro’s transit system is more accessible to our disadvantaged communities 

Mile High Connects
took form as a
collaborative with
vision, mission, and
values prioritizing
systems change and
community-driven
solutions.

Vision

A racially equitable, resilient Denver region where community-driven solutions are at the center of transformative systems change.

Mission

To prioritize and increase equitable investment into community-driven solutions by advancing collective action among nonprofits, community organizers, and private and public sectors, influencing how vulnerable communities experience growth.

VALUES

Play Video
Play Video
Play Video

MHC Leadership

Over its ten-plus years of existence, Mile High Connects has created a wide and broad table for inclusive leadership including a Steering Committee that has included dozens of organizations and community leaders from communities throughout the metro region.

An asterisk* represents a founding collaborative member.

9to5*
BuCu West
Cha Ka Mzee
Colorado Center on Law & Policy
Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition
Colorado Housing and Finance Authority
Enterprise Community Partners*
First Bank*
Ford Foundation*
Gary Community* Investments/ Piton Foundation
Gates Family Foundation*
Kaiser Permanente*
Krystin Trustman
Low-Income Investment Fund (SPARCC)
Maiker Housing Partners
Marpessa Allen
Mi Casa Resource Center
Mile High Business Alliance
Montbello Organizing Committee 
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)*
Neighborhood Development Collaborative 
New Belgium Family Foundation 
Rose Community Foundation* 
Terry Liggins
The Buck Foundation* 
The Colorado Health Foundation* 
The Colorado Trust 
The Denver Foundation* 
Together Colorado* 
US Bank 
United for a New Economy (formerly FRESC)* 
Urban Land Conservancy*
Wells Fargo* 
West Denver Renaissance Collaborative
Aaron Miripol
Amanda Gonzalez
Amy Pulver
Amy Kenyon
Andrea Chiriboga-Flor
Anne Garcia
Beth Truby
Beth Conover
Bill Sadler
Brad Weinig
Candace Johnson
Carmen Medrano
Catherine Cox-Blair
Cha Ka M-Zee
Chris Smith
Christi Longsdorf
David Portillo
Debra Bustos
Desi Westlund
Devin Culbertson
Donna Garnett
Dr. Eric France
Erin Bennett
Felicia Griffin
Grace Lucero
Gwyn Barley
Jaime Gomez
Jennie Rodgers
Jennifer Billig
Jennifer Newcomer
Jessica Robetor
Joelle Gruber
Jonathan Cappelli
Julie Reiskin
Karen Fox Elwell
Karly Malpiede
Kesi Reylea
Kevin Abels
Kim Burnett
Krystin Trustman
Laia Mitchell
Lauren Hornett
Linda Tinney
Lisa Davis
Lucy Cantwell
Madeline Keating
Maria Sepulveda
Marpessa Allen
Mary Wickersham
Matt Barry
Mayra Gonzales
Melinda Pollack
Michael Miera
Michelle Hanley
Mike Kromery
Monica Lyle
Monique Lovato
Neha Mahajan
Patrick Horvath
Rob Chaney
Samaria Crews
Sanjiv Rao
Sarah Harman
Shelley Marquez
Stephen Moore
Terry Liggins
Tiana Patterson
Tiffani Lennon
Tom Gougeon
Tony Pickett
Tracey Stewart
Zoe Williams
steering committee 2019
Felicia Griffin FRESC
Mile High Connects was a place where
like-minded individuals could come together and learn from each other while also looking for ways to advance the conversation at a macro-level.
Eugene Howard
senior city planner
city and county of Denver
So few of us achieve progress truly on our own, and it's important how we talk about it to claim credit where credit is due, especially in an equity-oriented space.
Storm Taliaferrow
director of small business
National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders

Grants

Since 2011,

MHC has leveraged national funding from the Ford Foundation, Convergence Innovation Fund, and the Strong Prosperous and Resilient Community Challenge (SPARCC), as well as local foundations, catalyzing over $3 million in grants to community organizations, resident leaders and coalitions to driven community change forward.

MHC GRANTEES

Play Video
Mile High Connects has helped BuCu West work not just in Westwood but regionally and to think about how we affect the city as a whole.
Jose Esparza
executive director
BuCU west

Issue Area Impact

Affordable Housing and Community Facilities

  • Democratized data: Developed Regional Equity Atlas to bridge community and critical data on displacement; Developed the Early Warning System database to alert the housing community about properties at risk of losing affordability; Implemented Community Alert Database to empower & organize residents.
  • Invested in the production and preservation of affordable housing: Established a comprehensive regional pipeline of over 110 transit-oriented real estate and infrastructure development projects; Advocated for passage of new resources to maximize Denver’s Housing Fund and the expansion of the Denver Regional Transit Oriented Development Fund; originated over $7 million in financing out of the Denver Regional TOD Fund, resulting in 400 affordable rental homes; Worked with CHFA to create a new permanent position dedicated to the preservation of existing affordable housing.
  • Stabilized tenants’ ability to stay in place: Access to Opportunity Platform weaved local and state policy solutions alongside development strategies. Advocates and organizers worked to ensure made in affordable housing preservation & development stayed in place by pushing for tenant protections, including:
    1. Advocating for increased affordable housing requirements, from 3% to 10%, at the former Westminster Mall site
    2. State Bill 18-010 Residential Lease Copy & Receipt
    3. House Bill 19-1170 Residential Tenants Health and Safety Act (Warranty of Habitability)
    4. House Bill 19-1118 Extending Notice to a Tenant Before Eviction
    5. House Bill 19-1106 Rental Application Fees
    6. House Bill 21-1271 Department of Local Affairs Innovative Affordable Housing
  • The Transit Oriented Development Fund: A first-of-its-kind fund founded in 2010 to create and preserve affordable housing along current and future transit corridors in the City of Denver.  Money for the program came from the City of Denver, the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, and the state’s Division of Housing, along with Enterprise Community Partners, Mile High Connects, Urban Land Conservancy, and other nonprofit partners. The fund, which recently passed the $50 million  mark, had a goal of handing out 20 loans to developers to build 2,000 homes by January 2022. It has exceeded these goals.

9to5 Colorado
Colorado Housing and Finance Authority (CHFA)
Enterprise Community Partners
Maiker Housing Partners
Montbello Organizing Committee
Neighborhood Development Collaborative
United for a New Economy
Urban Land Conservancy
West Denver Renaissance Collaborative

Play Video
There are some issues that are too important for only one or two organizations to tackle. We need to come together to lift up issues that are important to residents across the whole city.
Renee Martinez Stone
Director of Planning & Data
denver housing authority

Accessible Transit: Affordable Fares, Meaningful Service Routes, First and Last Mile Connections

  • Affordable Transit Fares: Advocated for accessible student and low-income fare programs, resulting in Youth & LIFE fare programs.
  • Improving Public Transit Services: Supported state policies that removed barriers in RTD’s ability to better serve residents that rely on transit options; Influenced regional mobility planning efforts.
  • Meaningful Services Route Advocacy: Successful neighborhood-driven efforts to reinstate major bus service routes in Westwood neighborhood and hold back harmful service route cuts in Montbello with the opening of a new rail line in 2016.
  • Community Infrastructure Improvements: Engaged in regional and local planning efforts, supporting community and neighborhood organizing efforts in Globeville Elyria Swansea, Montbello, Westwood, and Aurora to improve bus stops and enhanced sidewalk connections.
  • First and Last Mile Connections: Supported research on funding and financing mechanism, and policy barriers to implementation of first and last mile infrastructure. 

9to5 Colorado
Affordable Fare Task Force
BuCu West
Colorado Cross Disability Coalition
Denver Streets Partnership
Enterprise Community Partners
FocusPoints
Mi Casa Resource Center
Montbello Organizing Committee
Natural Resources Defense Council

Play Video
Mile High Connects Affordable Fares Campaign
Dace West
SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA
RTD Bd Mtg 9to5 and Padres Y Jovenes
I remember as an RTD intern fourteen years ago, trying to bring up inequities in RTD fares and being shut down. The help of Dace West two years later in bringing back up this conversation was my first encounter with Mile High Connects. I remain grateful for that turning moment as it gave me power as a person of color in the workplace to be able to actually move something forward.
Mike Washington
Director of Denver Metro Area Outreach, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
U.S. Senator Michael F. Bennet

Business, Local Workforce, and Middle Skill Jobs

  • Workforce Opportunities near transit: Engaged community organizers and advocates to develop a community & small business engagement, identifying job retention and training pilot programs.
  • Enhancing Construction Opportunities: Successfully advocated to expand construction training programs including Central 70 apprenticeship programs and Construction Employment Opportunities (formerly Enhanced Training Opportunity) at DURA. Partnered with Community Colleges of Denver’s WIN program and Colorado Construction Institute to lead two construction workforce pilots in Sun Valley and Park Hill.
  • Anchor Institutions: Assessed transit-adjacent anchor institutions (universities and medical institutions) with focus on place-based investments and strategies to hire local residents.

Center for Community Wealth Building
Invest Health Coalition
Mile High Business Alliance
The Denver Foundation
United for a New Economy

COVID Response

  • Mobilized $30,000 in COVID funding to seven community leaders and organizations, including to Redline Contemporary Arts Center to kickstart a mask-making business that employed resident artists and produced hundreds of masks for the RTD.
  • Expanded Zoom licensing and technology to partners, providing small tech grants.
  • Provided critically needed protective face masks and shields to front-line transit workers by connecting the dots throughout our networks.
  • Created a rapid response grant program, distributing $10k in free ride vouchers to help community connectors reach community residents & subsidize volunteer time.
  • Supported small businesses owned by people of color or immigrants that were impacted by COVID with $27,000 of responsive grant funding to front-line organizations serving businesses that were ineligible for relief funding.
Invest Health helped form a coalition between Adams County, City of Westminster, Regis University & Tri-County Health. Having Mile High Connects at the table helped us in building the relationships necessary that ultimately helped get us through the early stages of COVID.
Kate Skarbek
city of Westminster
013

Collaboration & Community Building

  • Cross-Issue Learning: Brokered conversations & focus groups across housing, transportation, education, and transportation, breaking silos to address regional issues.
  • Invest Health: A year-long initiative that brought together the City of Westminster, Regis University, Tri-County Health, and Adams County to break down silos and engage local advocates to ensure voices of communities are heard. 
  • COVID Roundtables: Piloted bi-weekly information sessions, bringing together hundreds of table members, philanthropy, community partners, and allies to gain insight into immediate needs, sharing out best practices to engaging community safely during COVID, and identifying strategies for long term change.
  • Housing & Climate Resilience: Bridged climate conversations with affordable housing advocates & partners, nominating key members to decision making tables, and giving voice to the community.
  • Elevating Mobility as a Statewide Issue: Amplified work of local organizations, Denver Streets Partnership, SWEEP, and others, advocating for mobility & transit as a path towards equitable recovery.
  • National Learning: Elevated Denver organizations & projects to the national level, including the Bay Area, Chicago, and Memphis. 
044
055
Play Video
Play Video
Play Video
Early on I was asked by Deya to come and speak with the Mile High Connects board and the energy within this board meeting was unlike any other nonprofit meeting I had experienced before. Hearing directly from participants and being surrounded by such passionate board members made a big impact on how I started to envision what a nonprofit board could be like based on my experience.
Luke Ilderton
deputy director
energy outreach Colorado
What I've always appreciated in being involved with Mile High Connects was the commitment to using the data in order to build the power behind that lived experience in the community. The marriage between lived experience and the outside looking in data work was really validating in terms of finding which areas needed to be focused on.
Jennifer Newcomer
Colorado futures center

Community Outcomes

West Denver

  • Route 4 Bus-Line Reinstated Since then, the route has been a big success for folks along Morrison Road; ridership numbers have justified the need for this route in the Westwood community.
  • Safe walkways were prioritized when the Westwood Unidos Safety Action Team and Extreme Community Makeover organized over 300 volunteers from Westwood and surrounding communities to pick up trash and clean graffiti during “Go Westwood!” Their project created a safe walkway along eight  alleys that connect Federal Boulevard and local schools.
  • Cultural Corridors prioritized with key recommendations identified for preserving neighborhoods and small businesses ahead of General Obligation (GO) Bond investments.
  • Redefined community wealth as WDRC & Radian completed a white paper on ADUs, used to refine storytelling and narrative shifts.
  • Capital shifted to community projects as BuCu West Development Association accessed national SPARCC technical, capital, and strategy development resources and support in West Denver. The projects included the conversion of an old bottling plant into a business incubator and community small business spaces.
  • Amplified equity into the West Area Neighborhood Planning Initiative (WANPI) process through the West Denver Renaissance Collaborative (WDRC).
Mile High Connects helped me bring transit back to my community. This route is still with the Westwood neighborhood to this day. This belief in me helped me become the connector and organizer I am today & that impact will stay with our community for years to come.
Maricruz Herrera
La colectiva, former Westwood connector
FreshLo Hub by Montbello Organizing Committee

Far Northeast Denver

  • Amplified Investment in Community Projects: With SPARCC resources, MHC was able to provide Montbello Organizing Committee with a $45k technical assistance grant to support the predevelopment stage of the Montbello FreshLo Initiative. This early investment enabled Montbello Organizing Committee (MOC) to secure $7.2 M in grants and $2.3M in PRI commitments toward it’s FreshLo Development.
  • Engaged Community: MOC/FreshLo conducted deep outreach into the community to identify programming and opportunities.
  • Leveraged national technical assistance through SPARCC to provide MHC and SPARCC also provided guidance and support. The Montbello FreshLo Initiative is community ownership in action. 
Play Video
Being a grantee (Montbello Organizing Committee) gave us the funds to be able to pursue our work on our FreshLo hub.
Donna Garnett
MONTBELLO ORGANIZING COMMITTEE

Southwest Adams County/Westminster

  • Introduced a culture of collaboration between community organizations and institutions, hosting 5 conversations on ways to unite and find energy in connected work.
  • Built foundation for community leadership through Growing Home’s start-up committee to inform and develop the Community Organizing & Training Institute; focused on community dynamics with emerging advocacy issues identified including language access, food access, and transit.
Growing Home photo by The Denver Post
I'm very proud of the collaboration in southwest Adams County among Growing Home, Maiker Housing Partners, and the community in southwest Adams County. The journey of community organizing that we have had at Growing Home due to the support and collaboration with Mile High Connects has been amazing. Lessons that I will continue forward in my work include power sharing and balancing institutional voices, community-based organizations, and community member voice initiatives. True, authentic community change takes time.
Karen Fox Elwell
Growing home
East Colfax photo by Denver Urban Renewal Authority

East Colfax

  • Connected to Tenant Resources via the East Colfax Housing Group, convened by ECP, identified three subgroups focused on housing supply/production resident resources and leadership.
  • Galvanized Voices through the East Colfax Power Building Grants  & incubated the Community Connector Cohort to better coordinate direct services, including legal and rental assistance and ultimately long-term affordable housing. It evolved to build out the navigator program for longer term change. 
  • Build Power Through Data working closely with MHC partner Enterprise Community Partners and Colorado Futures Center to support community groups in the early stages of community owned real estate and cultural corridor business preservation strategies. 
A success that I attribute to the learnings that I've gotten from Mile High Connects is the International District on East Colfax. I got invited to go to Minneapolis with Mile High Connects through SPARCC and in Saint Paul they have a lot of different communities that have districts. Sitting at lunch in the African District, I immediately thought of East Colfax. I took that back with me to Denver and proposed it to the steering committee for the East Area Plan. Now we're moving forward with the International District and for me that inspiration came from this trip with Mile High Connects and that will have lasting significance.
Monica Martinez
The Fax Partnership

Our Staff Members

Play Video

Deyanira "Deya" Zavala

Executive Director, 2019-2022

It’s been a privilege to spend six years with Mile High Connects and witness the changing momentum in our region. Though our formal operations have ended, the impact of our work as seen in our small, but mighty investments, will continue to be felt for years to come. We sought to break down barriers to trust between institutions and communities & embolden communities to take the action when needed. 

I stand on the shoulders of the most impressive executive directors and visionary founders whose commitment to equity set the table for collaboration. I am incredibly thankful to each team member that dedicated their time, talent, and treasure to implementing the extraordinary vision laid out by our Steering Committee. To our funders and supporters, I am appreciative of your willingness to bring your whole selves to the table because at the end of the day, that’s how you build authentic trust with the Community. Mile High Connects & its legacy belongs to each of you.




Dace West

Former executive director

Jeff Su

former executive director

Davian Gagne

FORMER GRANTS & OPERATIONS MANAGER

Margaret "Maggie" Lea

Grants Manager

Director of Programs

(2019-2021)

Angela Davis

FORMER Director of operations

Paul Aldretti

FORMER Director, Policy & Strategic Partnerships

First and Last Mile Priority Area Coordinator

Morgan Turner

Program Officer

IMG_7709-Edit
IMG_1588

4 Key Lessons Learned | Our Gift to Community

When Mile High Connects sought out to make its impact on the region, our primary goal was to ensure the catalytic $6.7 billion investment in our rapid transit network resulted in opportunities for all. But we did so much more than that. Our impact stretched far beyond the corridors of light rail and bus expansion. 

As we looked to the future, we recognized that the work is not done. We offer the following lessons learned as our gift to the community, to those aspiring collaboration leaders, in the hopes that you will draw on our inspiration from what we’ve done and experienced along our journey.

Community Power Drives Change

Our collaborative has always sought to center community needs and amplify its voice through systemic change work, and only until recently have we learned what it takes to do this. Community efforts that bring together diverse organizations and individuals require time and authentic engagement to nurture trust and relationships. While this process can feel slow and meandering to some, it is critical to unlocking power in the community, which is where the solutions exist. Furthermore, as organizations look to bring additional community representation and leadership, the impact of their work includes building community power.

Change Your Mindset, Start with Naming Equity

The neighborhoods MHC committed to working in are not new and “up-and-coming” neighborhoods. They are culturally rich, vibrant, established communities with long-time residents who have worked tirelessly to belong. Our investment in each organization and resident group within these communities serves as a response to inequitable systemic forces that disproportionately impact these residents, to amplify their voices in creating their future, and ultimately give credibility to these community power centers. 

This work can’t shy away from naming equity and, with tools from national partners such as SPARCC, we’ve given folks the confidence and language to call out injustice, connect resident experiences with data to tell the story of displacement, and declare equity as the only way forward. There is still much progress to be made when it comes to building mutual respect across entities and people, but already through practice communities have learned and contributed equity perspectives to local and regional efforts.

Going into this work, I wish initially I would’ve understood that there can be such a gap between city officials rolling out policy and the community that they’re intending to serve. There can be a big gulf there, a gulf in distance, language, trust. And it takes efforts like ours in 2020,”– Renee Martinez-Stone

Transform Traditional Capital

When a home goes on the market or a local business closes its doors, it can have ripple effects in a neighborhood. With community-based organizations and the residents they partner with are eager to bring innovative solutions to acquiring properties, it’s time for philanthropic partners and community development financial institutions (CDFIs) to act. Rethinking traditional approaches to capital will require these partners to work in coalition with community partners to identify new approaches to financing and incorporating the “softer” aspects of development – organizing, policy/advocacy, and long term strategy development. We’ve learned that the opportunity for innovative capital is deeply rooted in collaboration. 

Find Meaningful Opportunities for Action

Like any collaboration with diverse partners, MHChad to learn to lean into challenges and conflicts to find the opportunity for action. Through leadership and partner transitions, we gained valuable perspective on the power of having a common connection and vision. Structural changes to how we worked with partners made collaboration easier & prepared us to quickly mobilize in emergencies, while bolstering trust & relationship building. We leaned into having the necessary discussions, with the right people at the table. We embraced a flexible role to meet the needs of the community, and learned that while objectives change over time having a clear common goal allows all partners to realize their role and chance to enable change. 

“The nimbleness and lack of rigidity of how MHC interprets its role was helpful in staying within the broad definition of this equity-focused collaborative, but zeroing in on discussions that needed to be had and support that needed to happen to small businesses that were not getting support from other groups,” -Table Partner

The inclusion of Denver in the SPARCC initative was big. The funding and support was amazing. We had so much great training and immersion and were able to travel among the six cities and learn their advocacy efforts and meet people on the ground. It made us feel like we weren't doing this alone.
Gretchen Armijo
Founder & president
Equity Policy solutions, llc

Our Last Stop

When Mile High Connects decided to close its doors, it was in recognition that our founding mission of preserving affordability near transit in the Denver area had been accomplished. Our efforts allowed us to mobilize resources and residents, impact policy, and invest in inspirational community projects, while creating and strengthening collaboration among diverse partners. 

MHC’s steering committee used its final resources to support community-based organizations doing work in our legacy neighborhoods, investing $250,000. Each organization that received MHC investments is committed to sharing cross-cutting issues and solutions in mitigating displacement pressures borne out of their work: West Denver, East Colfax, Montbello, & Southwest Adams County.

We know that our region’s needs have shifted and a new voice is necessary to follow the emerging momentum around community ownership. To galvanize broader support for grassroots community owned and benefiting real estate & cement our legacy, MHC invested $225,000 in the early planning of a new partnership of three regional/state organizations. These investments, alongside our place-based investments, will encourage learning, building new partnerships, identifying opportunities, and gaining momentum for a focused regional conversation on the issue. The following organizations will be bring their expertise to this regional conversation:

  1. Center for Community Wealth Building: Equitable Community Partnerships and Cooperative Development 
  2. Colorado Center on Law and Policy: Statewide policy & advocacy  
  3. Neighborhood Development Collaborative: Equitable Development Strategy & Policy 
Play Video
What Lives On
Dace west, Melinda Pollack, Patrick Horvath, Laia Mitchell & Felicia Griffin

Mile High Connects Last Stop | A Journey of Community Impact 2022